EVERYBODY who voted in the general election a month ago this weekend cannot but be frustrated that we are no nearer to having a government than we were then. With so much going on now – from Brexit trade talks to the serious threat of the Covid-19 virus that has spread across the world from China – being rudderless is not ideal, especially also as our health and housing crises continue to fester.
Next week, acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his caretaker ministers will be fanning out across the globe to use the publicity generated by the St Patrick’s Day celebrations to get the message out about what a great little place Ireland is to do business with/in. However, this will inevitably lead to a further delay in the formation of a new government.
The problem is that none of the parties have a definitive mandate to govern. Sinn Féin claim that they should lead a government of the left because they garnered 24.5% of the first preference votes compared to 22.2% for Fianna Fáil and 20.9% for Fine Gael, however in forming a government it is the number of seats won at the election that counts and Sinn Féin lost out in that regard by not having had enough candidates to convert their impressive votes tally into more seats.
Eighty seats are needed to form a government through a combination of parties and perhaps some individuals. With Sinn Fein’s 37 seats, it would seem too big an ask for them to gather the necessary 43 seats as, when you take out Fianna Fáil’s 37, after Seán Ó Fearghaíl was re-elected as Ceann Comhairle, along with Fine Gael’s 35 – neither of whom want to go into government with Sinn Féin – and Labour’s six, as they want to go into opposition, it leaves them 44 to go after, which includes a motley crew of independents, many of whose political DNA would be more right-leaning.
Mathematically, in theory, it could be done, but assembling and then trying to control such a cohort of political all-sorts would be a nightmare. Therefore, Mary Lou McDonald’s best hope of getting Sinn Féin into government in the south is to coalesce with one of the two big parties that emerged from the Civil War era, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
The populist spin that her party keeps putting out through various media and at an unprecedented set of Donald Trump-style countrywide rallies is that Sinn Féin deserves a turn in government because the old establishment parties have been rejected by the electorate does not add up when the facts are that, while Fine Gael lost 12 seats and Fianna Fáil seven, they have a combined 72 seats, while Sinn Féin has just 37.
Fine Gael have stuck unwaveringly to the pledge made before the general election that they would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin, but Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin wavered slightly on a similar promise to his party’s supporters in the immediate aftermath of the election until his parliamentary party subsequently reinforced their determination not to coalesce with Sinn Féin, in spite of a small number of its members not wanting to rule it out.
It should also be noted that Micheál Martin, before the general election, was not in favour of Fianna Fáil going into government with Fine Gael or of having a confidence and supply arrangement with them either. That could be about to change, even though it is a potential lose-lose situation for both parties in terms of maintaining their distinct identities, which are only tribal in nature as they are more or less the same policy-wise, also ceding the leadership of the opposition to Mary Lou McDonald.
That would create a more distinct left-right divide in Irish politics, which would play into the hands of the parties of the left much better, as they seem to have an underlying momentum at the moment. This is why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael don’t want another general election any time soon, as an immediate one would see an inevitable gain in seats for Sinn Féin and bring them within touching distance of forming a government.
Purely for political expediency, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may have to suck it up and form a government, perhaps with the Green Party and a few independents, to bring them over the 80 seats mark, in order to avoid any imminent election. This would render the ‘election for change’ label that the 2020 instalment was given redundant, but it might just lead to the beginning of the end of so-called Civil War politics.
However, don’t believe a word of it when any of these politicians try to tell you that they are entering into some arrangement that they were previously not comfortable with ‘in the national interest.’ Make no mistake: party interests always come first!